Cinema Review: Women Talking

Posted February 8, 2023 in Cinema Reviews

Every year the Academy takes the bait and nominates for Best Picture a film that feels like you’re getting force-fed vegetables.

Based on Miriam Toews’ book, which is itself inspired by horrendous true events that occurred in an enclosed Mennonite community in Bolivia, the film follows a group of illiterate, yet politically astute, women staging a plebiscite in a hayloft. They’ve just realised men from their colony have been tranquilizing and repeatedly raping them. They must choose one of three options: stay and do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. According to their beliefs, not forgiving their attackers would condemn them to damnation.

Such a premise sounds compelling, and it should be, but director Sarah Polley has done little to dispel the drabness you feared awaited you upon appraisal of the poster. The film’s one concession to visual inventiveness is its look: a dreary, desaturated colour palette, verging on monochrome, presumably suggesting an anaemic society. Still, this is frankly a very ugly-looking film.

But it’s biggest problem is that it’s incurably stagey — while not being based on a play. We barely ever leave the hayloft. Although the absent men are in the nearby town posting bail for the attackers, the abusive husband of a woman called Mariche (Buckley) returns. Even then we see nothing of their home life with the husband confined to the shadows. With amorphous male violence looming, the film is somehow dramatically inert. Having a more dynamic, less entertainment-averse approach would’ve helped the film’s issues resonate rather than detract from them. To achieve some Bechdel test ideal, men are xeroxed out of the narrative.

That is except for August (Ben Whishaw — a skilled actor of delicacy), who is ensconced among them to take the minutes since the women can’t read. Whishaw is saddled with the thankless role of being the uncomplicatedly good male acolyte (providing a handy buffer against accusations of misandry). In the book, he’s the narrator, but such is Polley’s commitment to this being a female-centric film that she makes sixteen-year-old Autje the narrator (a standout Kate Hallett). The film appears contaminated by the recent zeitgeist, instead of adhering to the logic of this hermetically sealed community.

There are saving graces. Intriguingly, every generation is represented, and allowed take part in actionable democracy. The ideas debated can be philosophically absorbing. The women come at their heavy predicament from every angle: the difference between real forgiveness and false forgiveness, whether violence is sometimes justified, how true faith goes beyond doctrinal prescriptions. But it all feels notional, theoretical.

The commanding performances, while technically accomplished, are theatrically outsized, like they are playing to the gallery; every didactic line of dialogue is enunciated with a forthrightness that jars with the women’s traumatising subjugation — no one mumbles. And in lieu of much suspense, the intensity of the performances are an imposition rather than a prompt to empathy. Besides, the women feel like mere mouthpieces for ideas — one exception being Claire Foy’s furious performance as Salome, an advocate for fighting, giving the film a much needed shot in the arm.

But the film doesn’t do justice to the severity of the situation. Bafflingly indirect, it parasitically draws from the real-life case for its own aesthetic aims, rather than getting down in the weeds.

Women Talking unaccountably has an 90 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Critics, just like the Academy, can get overawed by acting pedigree as well as a terminal case of worthiness. An airless treatise aching to be a full-blooded drama.

Words: Rory Kiberd

Illustration: Kelly O’Dowd

Women Talking

Director: Sarah Polley

Talent: Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy, Rooney Mara, Frances McDormand, Kate Hallett, Ben Whishaw

Release Date: February 10


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